Technical and organizational skills are not the only requirements for effective project management, said experts from FHI 360, a nonprofit human development organization based in Durham, N.C. Instead, the success or failure of a project often hinges on how well project managers share information with their team members and stakeholders.
“No matter what area or phase of the project you’re in, the most important work you’ll do is communicating,” said Rebecca Johnson, MIDP alumna and project manager at FHI 360.
Johnson and Melissa Panagides-Busch, director of Corporate Project Management, visited Dr. Frank Webb’s Project Management class on Wednesday, April 9, to share their perspectives on how to effectively monitor, control and close international development projects.
Monitoring and controlling, often confused, are two distinct and equally critical aspects of project management. While monitoring refers to gathering the necessary data, controlling is about using these data to make appropriate adjustments and stay on target to meet project goals.
During the talk, students were asked to list some of the most important variables to monitor. Along with the more obvious answers of time and cost, Johnson and Panagides-Busch suggested the quality of materials procured, accessibility of services provided, and feedback from stakeholders such as village elders and sponsors.
However, they warned students to avoid going after interesting or readily available data that don’t directly relate to project goals.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘So what?’” Panagides-Busch said. “Don’t waste time and energy chasing information that won’t advance the project.”
Hands on the wheel
Panagides-Busch asked the students to envision driving down a flat, straight desert highway. Even when there are no visible obstacles, you have to stay focused and keep making micro-adjustments in your steering to make sure you stay on target.
“If you held the wheel still, you would start to veer off course,” she said. “That’s really what project management and control are all about. If you’re doing a good job, the only changes you need to make are little ones.”
Controlling – or using data gathered during the monitoring process to make needed adjustments – is a critical component of project management. It is especially useful early in the project, when changes can be made most easily.
“Controlling is about discovering and solving problems while they’re still small,” Johnson said. “It’s also about knowing where you stand, and ensuring continued agreement on goals and expectations.”
Johnson and Panagides-Busch asked students to outline some of the most important tools for effective control. Some of the answers included incentives, detailed schedules, defined tasks, and clear roles and objectives.
“It’s important to spell out your authority, make the case for the project and maintain two-way communication to make sure people know what’s going on,” Panagides-Busch said.
Change management is an important aspect of control. Since changing circumstances are unavoidable, it is crucial to have a clearly defined process for adapting the project accordingly. This includes establishing criteria for when changes can be made on the team level and when they need to be escalated to the board or funder.
“If you look like you’re arbitrary, your change management isn’t going to work.” Panagides-Busch said.
Tying up loose ends
Closeout, Panagides-Busch said, is often the most overlooked aspect of project management.
“Often, as your project is closing, the fun part is over and your company is already looking for your next assignment,” she said.
However, closeout is one of the most important aspects of project management, yielding valuable insights into what worked well and what needs to be adapted for future projects.
“Closeout is the easiest thing to leave undone as you move on to the next project, but thinking through how the project went and being able to document that is very helpful,” Johnson said. “It’s like having a before and after picture.”
Panagides-Busch explained the value of a “hot wash,” a term used in the military to describe how weapons are doused in hot water to loosen the grime and grease before they are dismantled and cleaned.
In the world of project management, a hot wash refers to sitting down with your team immediately after the project ends to hash out what areas need improvement.
“You get a lot of robust information doing a hot wash,” Panagides-Busch said. “The idea is to get the big things out of the way before doing a detailed after-action review.”
Amid the evaluation and reporting, they said, it’s important not to forget to draw attention to the outcomes and celebrate successes.
“You want to make sure to tie up loose ends,” Johnson said. “But if the project went well, you want to do it in a celebratory way.”